With the Athens games out of way, the Boycott Beijing campaign is now in full swing, arguing that China’s lousy human rights record should disqualify it from holding the 2008 Olympics and imploring the West to repeat the snub which marred the Moscow games of 1980. Admittedly China isn’t the sort of country you would want to invite home to have tea with your mother, but then the same applies to rather a large proportion of the countries that competed in Athens. If alleged human rights abuses were considered sufficient grounds to disqualify countries from holding sporting events, the world would not agree to hold them anywhere outside Norway. China’s human rights record does not and should not prevent us buying its manufactures, and neither should it prevent our marathon runners traversing Tiananmen Square in four years’ time. If anything, the presence of the Olympics will force China to adopt a more internationally acceptable form of government. As for the Moscow boycott of 1980, does anyone seriously believe the credit for the ending of communism lies with American sprinters and pole-vaulters?
The real reason so many Westerners fear a Beijing games, of course, is the prospect that China might win most of the medals. China won 32 golds in Athens, against America’s 35. Given home advantage, China will almost certainly top the table in Beijing and topple America from its long-held position of sporting superpower. Only the introduction of Western friendly events like golf — whose representatives are lobbying the International Olympic Committee hard for inclusion in the 2008 games — can hope to prevent a host of Chinese gymnasts and long-distance runners from stealing the show.
Opponents of sporting boycotts traditionally allege that ‘sport and politics do not mix’. Yet that ignores the sporting advantages of boycotts: just think, had we taken the trouble to find a tribe of pygmies being maltreated by a Brazilian regional development agency, we might have got that country thrown out of the 2002 World Cup before the blighters put us out of it.